Setting ethnicities: comparisons across Bohemia, India and Catalonia

Aerial view of the Bohemian city of Český Krumlov, whose building runs from the medieval period to the present day

Aerial view of the Bohemian city of Český Krumlov, whose building runs from the medieval period to the present day

I was just catching up with blogs before updating here myself, and found this note at Muhlberger’s Early History, which is one of his reports on the work of his collaborator, democracy advocate Phil Paine, two of whose book reviews form the core of the post. The one that caught my eye was about the creation of the nation of Bohemia, which the author whom Paine was reviewing, Nancy Wingfield (thus taking this post three references deep now), put largely down to a false monolingualism determined by the Austro-Hungarian authorities. I was especially struck by this bit:

Millions of people who were bilingual or multilingual, who might use Czech to gossip with a neighbour, German at work, Hungarian to talk to a brother-in-law, and Slovak in bed with their spouse, suddenly had to define themselves like a species of insect by one, and only one of these languages. A Jewish shopkeeper might speak Yiddish at home, Moravian with his Customers, and read German newspapers and books. Czech nationalists insisted that he be considered a German, and German nationalists insisted that he was not. His rabbi claimed him as neither. The only opinion that carried no weight was his own. Up until then, in most of rural Bohemia, a given person would have said, ‘I am from such-and-such a village’, not ‘I am Czech’ or ‘I am German’. Most Bohemians lived in this multi-cultural and multi-lingual reality, and had done so for centuries, but the census demanded that everyone be labeled ethnically under a single language, assumed to be identical with some inherent biological species.

To intellectuals and political activists, the resulting statistics and manufactured ethnicities became the tools for power struggles.

Of course, it’s but the biggest blow in a long long process of back and forth between domination of German and non-German cultures in this kingdom that was once one of the electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, but this piece reminds me rather of something medieval, in terms of dates, but not at all European (and therefore not really medieval, as there’s no ‘middle’ for it to be in). It reminds me of a seminar I once saw given by an Indian scholar whose name is Romila Thapar. She is now Kluge Professor at the Library of Congress, but when her candidacy for the post was announced there was a great furore in India, and petitions raised against her that called her a Marxist, a Communist and someone who “denies that India even had a history”. Petitions were raised for her too, and she eventually got the job. (A balanced-seeming view that actually refers to her work here; a Hindu pro-tolerance one here, it’s all very complicated.)

Romila Thapar in interview

Romila Thapar in interview

So what was this dangerous firebrand preaching, when I saw her? That 11th- and 12th-century charter evidence from the North-West of India, where Muslim incomers had acquired a substantial rôle in society, showed both groups in apparent cooperation over land sales, witnessing together and so on, and so the embedded historiographical idea that in India Muslims and Hindus have always fought bitterly seemed in fact to be a much more modern construction. She blamed legislation by the British to prevent such conflict, they assuming falsely that there must be some. I don’t know about that—my reading on India is pretty scant—and my own work on spotting ethnic mix in charters means that I now wish I’d asked her how she was attributing religion to these people from their names, because I can point you to deacons in Spain called Muhammad, and so on. All the same it shows that there was no established discourse of a superior ethnicity such as was established in Bohemia by state intervention; there’s nothing in the documents that she presented to suggest that either Muslims or Hindus were controlling the process to the exclusion of the other group. They sat on village councils together, presumably did business together and so on. Now there may be more to Professor Thapar’s work than this, in fact there must be, but the impression I left with was that this person gets death threats because she suggests that once upon a time, Indians got on more or less peacefully. But the suggestion that an opposition now so crucial to so many people’s identities in India is a modern construct and not hallowed by the centuries of blood that Indians grow up hearing about is a big threat to current senses of identity.

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

A high medieval illumination of battles during the Reconquista

It’s not hard to parallel this from my own studies, of course, because this is another area where it has become legend that a national identity was built out of conflict with the Muslims (in some places quite a nasty legendsome deconstruction here and see references below). The work I mentioned above about communities with Arabic names, groups who participate enthusiastically in the nascent Leonese kingdom’s formation, should show you that this is overstated, but in Catalonia it’s actually harder to show this lack of concern with ethnicity. People (and places) with Arabic names do occur, but rarely; references to conflict are infrequent but enough to suggest that it was fairly continuous but usually very small-scale. Meanwhile, because it is in some senses suppressed, the quest for a Catalan national sentiment is very important to modern-day Catalans; establishing that they were once a nation, perhaps even before upstart Castile, makes the case for secession much easier to maintain. This is why Ramon d’Abadal had to struggle so hard to establish the case that, really, before at least the millennium and probably later Catalonia was not yet a thing. The key point is supposed to come in 985, when the Muslim hajib al-Mansur led the army that sacked Barcelona; this, and the subsequent realisations that all the proto-Catalan counties were in it together and that they had no exterior support any more, has been held to start people writing about the area as if it had an identity of its own. I myself can see no sign of a unified response and think that the real efforts in this line come after the union with Aragón, partly because by then all the separate Catalan counties have collapsed into the control of the house of Barcelona, but also because until then there is no need to define themselves against anyone; France is still forming and hasn’t really got that far south, and Aragón is aimed in a different direction. Once the counts become kings elsewhere, though, the threat of inferior status makes the Catalans look to their lineages, or so I think anyway. There’s a lot of work on this I haven’t done though. The comparisons above however help me think it’s a case that could be defended: here again, it wasn’t a popular sentiment that set up a perceived ethnicity, it was a state exercise of politics that brings about an unwelcome process of definitions not necessarily mirrored at ground-level.


Limiting references to the absolute basics, Nancy Wingfield’s book that Phil Paine was reviewing is Flag Wars and Stone Saints: how the Bohemian lands became Czech (Cambridge MA 2007) (which should so very much have been called Czech your Change don’t you think?). Romila Thapar’s most immediately accessible work is probably either her Penguin A History of India: volume 1 (Harmondsworth 1990) or Early India: from the origins to 1300 (Berkeley 2004). The easiest and most readable antidote to the Menéndez Pidal Reconquista mythos is Richard Fletcher, “Reconquest and Crusade in Spain c. 1050-1150″ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 37 (London 1987), pp. 31-47 but see also idem and Simon Barton (eds), The World of El Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest (Manchester 2000). On the Catalan lack of interest in such definitions you should soon be able to see Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (eds), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming). The 985 theory comes from Michel Zimmermann, “La prise de Barcelone par Al-Mansur et la naissance de l’historiographie catalane” in L’historiographie en Occident du Ve au XVe siècle. Actes du Congrès de la Société des Historiens Médiévistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur (Tours, 10-12 juin 1977), Annales de Bretagne et des Pays de l’Ouest Vol. 87 (Rennes 1980), pp. 191-218. A reference for my scepticism lacks as yet, but let’s see what happens after November

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8 responses to “Setting ethnicities: comparisons across Bohemia, India and Catalonia

  1. I’m sending sepoy from Chapati Mystery over here …

  2. What a wonderful set of Koestlerian connections this post has for me. Romila Thapar was the first Indian historian I read, and her discussion of the Indian republics led me to look into that area. That interest ultimately resulted in my work with Steve Muhlberger. I stayed overnight in the building shown in the lower right corner of the photo of Cesky Krumlov (it was destroyed a few days later by flood waters), and the same photo is on my wall. The friend who brought me there inspired much of my comment, since we discussed the subject at length while hitch-hiking in arctic Canada — I would credit him with most of the insight. The reconquista and the creation of the Iberian nationalities was in the back of my mind when I wrote the review, and my first draft referred to it (a sentence eliminated to keep the review from wandering too far).

    However, I am not an anthropologist. I traveled in West Africa on my own, as a callow youth, poking my nose into dangerous places far beyond my expertise and common sense. It took me many years to come to any conclusions about the confusing things that I experienced. All my discussions of culture are based on reading or personal observations, but not on any experience as a trained anthropologist.

  3. I’ll pull that bit out right away. To you later readers, nothing to see here :-)

  4. What these examples do suggest is that the key is not so much the state in itself, but the state with a tick-box. It’s only when you have a bureaucracy that really feels it’s important to have these clear categories that they get fixed, otherwise people can just be considered as a random group of natives/peasants etc. So from an almost complete ignorance of Indian history, are the British laws connected with attempts to form homogeneous native regiments, for example?

    For the early Middle Ages, the most obvious place for this kind of state interest to develop would be Islamic states with the dhimmi concept, because that actually mattered for tax purposes. I can’t think of any other early medieval state where ethnicity/religion really mattered enough to the ruling class to make it worth fixing it: what law you lived by needed to be determined only for the duration of a legal case and even if ethnic groups fought as units, all that mattered was enough ‘Aquitanians’ or whoever turned up for a particular campaign, not whether they were full-time, permanent Aquitanians. What would be intesrting to explore though (and I have no idea of the answer) is when, if ever, Jews were exempted by secular law from paying church tithes in Christian kingdoms.

  5. I think the Visigothic legislation against Jews definitely counts as such a case where ethnicity mattered, except that Jewishness/Judaism is always a complex case for ethnicity because race and religion are so closely tied together. The Visigothic laws would mostly exempt a Jew that converted to Christianity, but that may be partly because the legislators knew that Judaism itself would define such a person as no longer any kind of Jewish.

    I feel that I ought to know about Jews and tithe, if only because Catalonia has more Jews with better representation than most other early medieval territories. I can’t find the notes I ought to have about this, but my memory is that though they did not pay tithe, those communities paid what amounted to a protection tax to the bishops which amounted to the same thing, precisely to avoid that kind of incentive I suspect…

  6. Or is that the German Jews who get it in the neck come the First Crusade? I think it might be, which might explain why I’m not finding the notes. Drat.

  7. Pingback: What are all you Český Krumlov people finding here? « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  8. Pingback: Metablog VI: automated search queries? « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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